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ASSIGNMENT

Achebe’s representation of the colonial experience and pre-colonial Africa is devoid of


any attempts at romanticizing. Discuss.

Chinua Achebe’s debut novel, Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958, is widely
considered to be the first of the archetypal African novels written in English. Chronicling pre-
colonial life in Nigeria during the 1890s, it portrays a world on the brink of change: how a
tribal society with centuries of customs and norms behind it reacts to the onslaught of the
“modernizing” and “civilizing” European settlers. Achebe consciously “writes back” to the
Empire by undermining and subverting the Western notion of Africa as a land of “darkness”
and savages. He achieves this through the portrayal of Igbo people as cultured and civilized,
with traditions and laws that place great emphasis on justice, fairness and democracy,
whereas the white characters are one-dimensional. This is an answer to the conventional
white narratives, the most prominent example being Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of
Darkness, where the black characters are denied a voice, and subsequently, their humanity.
However, there is no nostalgic romanticizing of the pre-colonial culture either; Achebe
depicts the Igbo culture for exactly what it was, a patriarchal system full of injustices.

One of the principal devices used by Achebe towards this end is the depiction and close
examination of the violence that seems to be inherent in Igbo culture. To quote David
Hoegberg from his essay ‘Principle and Practice: The Logic of Cultural Violence in Achebe’s
Things Fall Apart’ (1999), “Although Achebe powerfully criticizes the violence of British
colonial practices, the British do not enter the picture until after Achebe has explored the
internal workings of Igbo culture.” A stark example of the injustices that underlie the
workings of the community is the treatment meted out to its outcasts, or “osu.” Even though
the osus are native residents of the village, the collective behaviour of the tribe towards them
seems to ensure and perpetuate their otherness. Moreover, the fact that osu is treated as a
hereditary category is contradictory to one of the central tenets that the Igbo ethos is founded
upon, that children should be exempted from judgement based solely on the worth of their
fathers. The osu "could neither marry nor be married by the freeborn. He was in fact an
outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he
carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste: long, tangled and dirty hair.” This constant
brutal othering of the osu proscribes any assimilation into the mainstream village life, thus
denying them any chance at not just social mobility, which is promised to virtually everyone
else, but also a life of dignity and self-respect.

In A Mask Dancing: Nigerian Novelists of the Eighties (1992), Adewale Maja-Pearcehas has
asserted that one of Achebe's purposes in Things Fall Apart is to assert that "the spiritual
values of pre-colonial Africa were in no way inferior to those of Europe, merely different.”
Clayton G. MacKenzie takes this argument forward in his essay ‘The Metamorphosis of Piety
in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart” (1996) by expostulating that it was precisely this
difference that rendered the entire thological construct vulnerable, since “The religious codes
and practices of Umuofia, unchallenged for centuries and perhaps millennia, had not evolved
strategies for adaptation or confrontation.” It was the tribespeople’s, particularly the elders’
smug belief in the workings of the system they had been entrusted to carry forward, that
ultimately failed them. This is not to say that this was the sole reason for the breakdown of
the pre-colonial way of life, but it was certainly a major factor. The missionaries were
successful in breaking down communal norms completely, simply because they were the first
ones who even attempted to do so, and their challenge took the Igbos by such force of
surprise that it took no time at all for things to change irrevocably. In this way, Achebe
unflinchingly shows the shortcomings of the pre-colonial indigenous religion, unlike the
nostalgia struck depictions of many African novelists.

Most importantly, it is through his tragic protagonist Okonkwo that Achebe succeeds in
pointing out the major flaws in the Igbo patriarchal system. Okonkwo’s unceasing obsession
with appearing ‘manly’ in accordance with his cultural norms ultimately ends in his
alienation from that same culture. His desire to rid his self of anything that is even remotely
feminine leads him to ignore the very same traditions and ideals that he has struggled all his
life to uphold. In ‘Language, Poetry and Doctrine in Things Fall Apart’, C.L. Innes and
Bernth Lindfors have articulated that Okonkwo's attitudes are framed by the culture's
language
and its implications, and it is this that makes him "unable to acknowledge the mythic
implications of femininity and its values.” This is why he fails to achieve a mutually
satisfying relationship with his son Nwoye, whom he considers too “feminine”, and also a
mirror image of his own father, who was decidedly not “masculine” enough to be considered
a success in the village community. Nwoye’s subsequent conversion to Christianity and
adoption of the name Isaac (the Biblical connotations cannot be ignored here) are arguably
the biggest blows that Okonkwo receives in the text, that his own son should turn his back on
the culture and religion that defined his existence and his purpose in life from a very early
age onwards. Ato Quayson’s seminal essay, ‘Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both:
A Reading of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart with an Evaluation of the Criticism
Relating to It’ (1994) talks about how despite the overt patriarchy pervading Igbo culture, the
text often presents Okonkwo in an ironical light, “suggesting the inadequacy of the values he
represents and ultimately those of the hierarchy that ensures his social status.” It is not just
Okonkwo who is being critiqued in this way, it is the entire patriarchal framework of the
society that is shown to be lacking, with Okonkwo and his values representing an “extreme
manifestation of the patriarchy that pervades the society as a whole.”

Therefore, through a careful analysis of the text, especially in the context of the narratorial
descriptions of Igbo culture, one can come to the conclusion that Achebe’s representation of
the colonial experience and pre-colonial Africa is devoid of any attempt at romanticizing.

ARUSHI BHASKAR
BA (H) ENGLISH, THIRD YEAR
2015/1156